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Gold Butte and Scanlon Dugway

Posted in Events on August 1, 2011
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Stunning scenery awaits the backcountry visitor to the Gold Butte Mining District and surrounding areas south of Mesquite, Nevada. This region is within a strip of land between the Overton Arm of Lake Mead to the west, the Arizona border to the east, and Lake Mead to the south. Several miles of roadway are designated as the Gold Butte Back Country byway by the BLM and are suitable for use by any high-clearance vehicle. Four-wheel drive is required to travel trails in the south. Remote access to the shore of Lake Mead is possible at several locations.

Vegetation and wildlife is abundant and varied as the elevation ranges nearly 6,900 feet. Life zones transition from the wetter mountains to the dry desert. Joshua Trees, yucca, barrel cacti, and other drought tolerant plants find the lower elevation desert suitable and are commonly observed at the roadside.

From Mesquite (1,600-foot elevation), a paved road steadily climbs and ultimately passes through a break in the Virgin Mountains. After stretching for 31 miles southward, pavement ends near a series of rusty red and tan sandstone outcrops. They exhibit unusual erosion patterns of cave-like holes and bowls; this site is known as Whitney Pocket. Rainwater that pools in the depressions here has been a valued resource for desert travelers since the time of early Native Americans (the Anasazi).

The Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) completed some work at Whitney Pocket from 1933 to 1942. A concrete dam was built at a crevasse in the sandstone in an attempt to catch water. Piping from the dam leads to a livestock watering trough. A nearby cave was walled in by the CCC. Parts of the walls are now disintegrating rapidly and a sign urges the public to assist in conserving what remains. In spite of CCC and cattlemen’s efforts to harvest the scarce water supplies, this region does not favor successful ranching. The summers are unbearably hot and often the winters are quite harsh.

A dam was built by the CCC at Whitney Pocket in an attempt to harvest scarce rainwater for ranching.

Whitney Pocket (3,100-foot elevation) is a good location to dry camp. But, all campers must be responsible and respectful of the surroundings. As evidenced by some scarring of the landscape by a few fools, it is obvious that improved education is required for certain OHV users. They must be made aware of the importance of staying on approved routes to eliminate any terrain and resource damages.

On this trip, we (two Bobs from New Mexico) have again met up to drive our Jeep Cherokees on backcountry routes. This time, in and near the Gold Butte Mining District. After a late start from Las Vegas, Bob Telepak and I spend the first night out camped at Whitney Pocket.

At Mile Point 39 (from the downtown Mesquite starting point) the route divides. This is an intersection of which each branch forms a bidirectional loop to and from Gold Butte town site. Traveling southward to the left is the most direct route. Because the branch to the right leads past some good quality petroglyph (rock art) panels in 8/10ths of a mile and to other interesting sites, we traveled that direction. It is believed that some petroglyphs found in the Gold Butte region may be as old as 3,000 years.

Ancient rock art, known as Pictographs, adjacent to Gold Butte Road.

A half-mile past the petroglyphs, the main byway continues to the northwest within Mud Wash. Here, we took a parallel branch to the left that leads to other petroglyphs in 3.7 miles. We pass a spur road that Bob said led to a colorful campsite. It was signed closed to vehicle access, so we continued on to view the next petroglyph panels. Unfortunately, many of the panels at this location show considerable weathering.

From there, we backtracked about a mile. Along the way, there was a long hill climb that had us a little worried. But no problem, we drove right up without spinning a tire. Back to the byway, we then drove to the northwest towards Bitter Ridge. Where the route closely approaches Bitter Ridge, a sign states 0.5 mile to Red Bluff Spring. Here, a very skinny road proceeds downhill and great care must be taken to not slip off either side. In fact, my left rear tire did move just a tad downhill; many of you may have experienced that same brief subsequent adrenalin rush!

Palette of color at Whitney Pocket.

Shortly, we discovered that the spur road that leads to Red Bluff Spring had recently been fenced off by the BLM to eliminate motorized access. We continued on the main byway, which follows Mud Wash in an easterly direction. We took a spur to the left at a “Y” and then drove towards Red Rock Springs.

The route continues up a wash in the direction of a cluster of palm trees growing out of place in this desert environment. We reached yet another route blockage; wood posts and heavy cable fencing recently installed to stop motorized vehicles. A lot of work has taken place to eliminate access to many colorful sites in the area!

Wilderness advocates are pushing for passage of a Gold Butte National Conservation Act, which would establish approximately 128,000 acres of BLM Wilderness and approximately 91,000 acres of National Park Service Wilderness within approximately 362,177 acres. Increased protection of the currently designated Desert Tortoise Area of Critical Concern seems to be one focus of the bill. Reasonable enough. While the Act is not supposed to close any of the existing designated motorized routes, it seems that desired additional road closures may have already taken place. Nevada motorized recreationists are, and should be, skeptical of the true intentions of the Wilderness advocates and their buddies in Congress with this bill.

Colorful and oddly eroded outcrops at Whitney Pocket.

We backtracked to Mud Wash and then traveled in a southeasterly direction. The route passes by a corral, which appears to be intact, so it may have been used in recent years. Shortly, we again took the shortcut that parallels Mud Wash a short distance before it turns to the west. Upon rejoining the byway, we then traveled southward following Gold Butte Wash, with Lime Ridge viewed directly to the west.

The Tramp and Fork Fires devastated more than 71,000 acres in July 2005. The lightning-spurred infernos burned out many miles of Joshua Trees, yucca, and other desert vegetation. We observed that the main road had been an effective firebreak in many places. A number of existing side roads are currently closed in the vegetation restoration areas.

With 70 roundabout miles traveled since we left the gas station in downtown Mesquite, the Gold Butte town site was reached. Some historians believe that Spanish explorers camped in the region in the 1730s and crushed gold and silver ore, long before others sought riches here. It is known that the Gold Butte Mining District saw activity in 1873 when Mormon pioneer Daniel Bonelli discovered and began to mine vermiculite sheet mica. Gold was discovered in the area in 1905. A town grew quickly, consisting of a few permanent buildings and a miner’s tent camp. A post office opened on March 19, 1906. Gold Butte even had its own hotel. Some 1,500 to 2,000 people lived in the area during this mining boom.

It is a fact that more copper than gold was mined during the Gold Butte Mining District’s heyday. Lincoln and Old Tramp Mines to the north produced high-grade copper ore. Mining activity slowed down during 1910 and the post office closed on February 28, 1911. The town was dismantled and those desert-scare building materials were reused at St. Thomas, Nevada. Some additional copper and zinc was shipped from the District up to 1918. Mule teams (plus horses and oxen) were used to pull ore wagons (freighters) to the rail spur at St. Thomas. Minor gold production continued in the District through 1941.

Gold Butte Road gets a bit skinny here.

William Garrett and Arthur Coleman moved to Gold Butte in 1916. They were partners in several enterprises, including some cattle ranching and some prospecting. It is said that they rather enjoyed their homemade moonshine. Both lived at the town site until their deaths, Coleman in 1958 and Garrett in 1961. Two headstones mark their gravesites. Or not; there is some speculation that the wrong gravesites were chosen to memorialize, of the dozen located at the Gold Butte cemetery. Fencing, scattered junk such as kitchen appliances, and the cemetery are about all that remains of the town site today.

This branch road leads to some weathered pictographs.

This location is the southernmost point of the two Gold Butte Back Country byway loop branches. The single road that continues south of the Gold Butte town site, and the existing branches, are strictly 4x4 routes. One way in and one way out from this point. We took this route southward for further exploration. Several roads were passed that branch off to the right and continue to overlooks or to access the Lake Mead Overton Arm. The largest branch road roughly follows Catclaw Wash to reach the shore within Lake Mead National Recreation Area. After a short stop on a high point from one of the branches, we returned to the main road and continued to drive south.

Just 13.5 miles south of Gold Butte we approached remnants of an old mine operation. An old travel trailer, old vehicles, and other junk are scattered about. A tempting side road zig-zags part way up the flanks of Rattlesnake Peak. Not knowing what to expect, I drove upward. Two switchbacks short of the top the Jeep was parked; room to turn around was diminishing at each subsequent corner. Hiking, Bob T caught up and we approached the mine. The ground glittered in the sunlight, photos were not able to capture the effect. And in the mountainside, huge chunks of mica layered in thick “books.” This was the Nevada Mica Mine.

Early prospectors favored burros as pack animals. Decedents of those long ago abandoned by the miners, wild burro populations exist in this area on down to the shores of Lake Mead. While traveling south of the mica mine, we spotted a wild burro who eyed us curiously and unafraid. Remote, not many 4x4s pass by on this road so the creature was not spooked. Continuing, some moderate rock crawling was required as the route follows Twin Springs Wash.

“Home, Sweet Home” near the mine site.

Several ferries were active in the late 1800s to facilitate crossing of the Colorado River. These were located at several locations from just west of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, into Nevada, east of what is now Las Vegas. They were used until Boulder Dam (now called Hoover Dam) was completed in 1935 and Lake Mead formed. One such ferry was put into service by Mike Scanlon in 1881. First known as Scanlon’s Ferry, it was later sold to Tom Gregg and renamed Gregg’s Ferry. The road we had been traveling southward on leads to other mine sites and to the shore of Lake Mead, short of the site of the now submerged Scanlon Ferry crossing. On the Arizona side, Scanlon Ferry was the site where mining operations located 7 miles to the south came to gather their water.

Now 17 miles south of Gold Butte, we approached what had to be a major undertaking when this route was constructed. We had reached the top of what is known as Scanlon Dugway. The roadbed was cut out of the side of solid rock. It is narrow and steep, the drop off at the side is hundreds of feet. About a third of a mile long, the grade at the road cut in places is over 20 percent. Approximately another half mile of dugway includes a series of switchbacks and perhaps averages a 14 percent grade. Scanlon Dugway does get your attention, and perhaps, leads to a “death grip” on the steering wheel. Even from the base of the dugway, the route continues to drop down steadily. It is about 3,990 feet in elevation at the top of Scanlon Dugway and 1,200 feet in elevation at the shore of Lake Mead just 6 miles away. The risks must have been enormous in taking horse-drawn buggies and mule-drawn rigs hauling freight on this hazardous route in the late 1800s to early 1900s.

Hill climb on the branch road.

About 2.5 miles beyond the top of the dugway, we entered Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The road sign stated we were now on 116 Scanlon Ferry Road. Continuing, we passed by the Lakeshore Mine site. As dusk was approaching, we had to keep moving so a stop at the mine would wait for the return trip. About a mile further, the route continues downward in the Gregg Wash drainage and the rocks were hard to see and avoid in the diminishing light. Hard on the nerves whacking things under-vehicle!

It was dark when we reached the shoreline of Lake Mead at the end of Scanlon Ferry Road. The campsite was made on ground that was once underwater when the lake level was higher. While enjoying dinner, we heard wild burros braying not far distant.

The next morning, we backtracked to the intersection with 116A Scanlon Bay Road. Next, at 117 Jumbo Pass Road we turned right and drove to the west. Jumbo Pass is a gentle rise of just 500 feet elevation and drops slightly to volcanic rock outcrops at the Black Box.

Between Nevada Mica Mine and Scanlon Dugway, the route crawls along Twin Springs Wash.

Black Box is striking with its dark coloration and contrasting red and green barrel cacti. They seem to grow directly out of rock. At one time the 4x4 road continued onward from here down Wild Burro Wash all the way to Lake Mead. Road 117 is now closed at a rocky V near the southern mouth of the Black Box. While modern, well set-up 4x4s could probably conquer this obstacle, it is strictly illegal to continue and the closure forced us to turn back around.

Back to the intersection with 116A Scanlon Bay Road, we turned right. Shortly, we stopped at the Joker Mine. Possibly the miners were after gold ore at this site. This mine was re-worked later as the date “10/15/66” had been scratched into some concrete. Abandoned mining equipment is scattered on the hillside. Old, dilapidated vehicles and a rusty ramshackle outhouse add to the ambiance. Continuing, the road ends at Lake Mead adjacent to Scanlon Hill with Scanlon Bay just around a bend to the south.

We reversed direction back to 116 Scanlon Ferry Road and then drove northward on the return trip. Lakeshore Mine was visited. This mine yielded gold, iron, and copper. Remnants of a mill and a huge accumulation of tailings suggest that this was a major operation at one time.

Bob Telepak led the way on the steep climb up Scanlon Dugway. With limited slips in both differentials, his Jeep XJ crawled up without fuss. I turned on the air pump to supply the ARB lockers in my Jeep, should their use be necessary. On the climb, my XJ spun tires and spit out loose rocks at times, but it did make the grade with open differentials, albeit kind of spooky.

Virgin Mountains define the skyline. Virgin Peak is the highest elevation in the area at about 8,050 feet.

Back at Gold Butte town site we stayed to the right and completed the section of the byway loop not previously driven. Grand Gulch Road branches to the east at St. Thomas Gap. Copper ore was freighted from huge Grand Gulch Mine in Arizona to St. Thomas, Nevada, along this route. Near Overton, Nevada, far to the west of this intersection, concrete foundations of buildings of the former St. Thomas town site are now visible due to low water level in Lake Mead.

Hill climb on the branch road.

Continuing northward, we took the short spur road to Devil’s Throat. This is a sinkhole some 100 feet wide and nearly as deep. It was formed by underground water movement a few decades ago. A fence surrounds the hole for safety, yet must be relocated occasionally as the hole continues to erode and grow.

We drove past Whitney Pocket and returned to downtown Mesquite, the round trip encompassing 183 miles. While it may be that Gold Butte Back Country byway is an easy drive, it does pass by varied and colorful landscapes. And the 4x4 branch road to the south of Gold Butte leads to the engineering marvel of Scanlon Dugway. Gold Butte and Scanlon Dugway are truly the links to remote 4x4 adventure trails within Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

In many places, Gold Butte Road was an effective firebreak during the 2005 Tramp and Fork Fires.
PhotosView Slideshow

Scanlon Ferry Road / Lake Mead Access Routes
36 16.064 114 13.210 Catclaw Wash Road to the west, access to Overton Arm of Lake Mead.
36 15.634 114 14.259 A branch road is driven a short distance for Lake Mead views.
36 13.054 114 15.343 Old corral. Wild burro spotted nearby.
36 11.153 114 13.642 Spur to Nevada Mica Mine.
36 10.623 114 12.644 Main route to the right at Y, leaving Twin Springs Wash.
36 09.634 114 12.079 At the top of Scanlon Dugway.
36 08.664 114 11.853 Into Lake Mead National Recreation Area, on 116 Scanlon Ferry Road.
36 08.277 114 11.670 Location of Lakeshore Mine.
36 07.675 114 11.406 Road follows Gregg Wash for the next 2 3/4 miles southward.
36 06.244 114 09.784 116 Scanlon Ferry Road intersects with 116A Scanlon Bay Road at right.
36 05.787 114 08.369 116 Scanlon Ferry Road ends at shore of Lake Mead. 2nd campsite.
36 05.725 114 09.900 116A Scanlon Bay Road intersection with 117 Jumbo Pass Road.
36 05.400 114 13.262 117 Jumbo Pass Road closed in the volcanic Black Box.
36 05.614 114 10.063 Spur to right from 116A Scanlon Bay Road to Jumbo Mine.
36 05.584 114 10.013 Location of Joker Mine.
36 05.467 114 08.748 End of 116A Scanlon Bay Road at Lake Mead.

The mineshaft at Joker Mine is blocked to prevent access.

GPS Coordinates Gold Butte Road/Gold Butte Back Country byway. Map Datum is WGS84.
Latitude (N) Longitude (W) Point Description
36 48.209 114 05.634 Start south on Hwy 170 at W. Mesquite Blvd in Mesquite, Nevada.
36 43.899 114 13.074 West on Hwy 170 near Riverside, turn left onto Gold Butte Road.
36 31.397 114 08.125 Whitney Pocket. Dry campsites in the area.
36 28.514 114 09.840 Intersection of Gold Butte Road (byway) west and east loops.
36 26.323 114 12.044 Pictographs.
36 26.189 114 12.442 Branch road to left (northwest) is taken, away from Gold Butte Road.
36 25.866 114 13.280 Weathered Pictographs.
36 27.681 114 15.090 Short, very narrow section of Gold Butte Road, left loop.
36 27.746 114 15.093 Road to Red Bluff Spring is now closed.
36 27.822 114 14.067 From the byway, a branch to left is taken towards Red Rock Springs.
36 27.362 114 13.251 Route now closed here. Hike to view Palm Trees in an odd locale.
36 26.579 114 13.944 Intersection with 2 routes from east. Byway is taken to the south.
36 23.092 114 14.031 Road continues to follow Gold Butte Wash, Lime Ridge close at west.
36 18.769 114 14.161 Lime Canyon viewed due west.
36 16.851 114 12.065 East Gold Butte Road loop begins here with Scanlon Ferry Road to south.
36 16.799 114 11.974 Gold Butte town site remnants and cemetery.
36 21.096 114 08.338 Great overlook of St. Thomas Gap to the north.
36 24.804 114 07.398 Gold Butte Road (east loop) Intersection with Grand Gulch Road.
36 25.661 114 08.940 Devil’s Throat sinkhole.

Motoring up Gregg Wash on the return trip northward.

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